The Apollonian and the Chthonian

 The Western reality system has been characterized as “Apollonian.” It’s a useful handle for a bundle of characteristics. The word derives, of course, from Apollo, the god of the sun. The Apollonian mind, familiar to us all because it is our own, is brilliantly sun-lit, clear and orderly. Reality is material, visible, simple, observable and apparent. There are no shadows, no darkness, no hidden, impenetrable mysteries. Humans are at the center of this reality. The Universe is knowable and works reliably like a machine. It is unintelligent and exists, basically, on only one level of reality, the material. Nature is controllable. Violence and terror are aberrations. Our safety and grasp of reality depend on understanding, classifying and ordering observable reality. We are at the center of things. Very little is alive in this Universe, just a limited number of organisms, including ourselves. All the rest, all the material and space in the Cosmos, is dead and inert. Everything is separate and stands apart from everything else. Very few things are connected to each other. Isolation and separation are the rule. There is reliance on the left brain and language to order experience. This view is reductionist and rational. There is a limited band of experience, and nothing is sacred. The Apollonian consciousness is the principal human strategy designed to lessen human anxiety. It creates the appearance of order and safety by screening out unacceptable, dark realities. It is based on denial.

The Chthonian consciousness is the polar opposite on practically every count. Chthonian means “from the bowels of the Earth.” It is a reality of shadowy, dark recesses, confused, unclear, chaotic, complex and only partially seeable. It is infinitely mysterious, full of incomprehensible forces at work. Reality is largely invisible and immaterial, and there are many levels of reality. The Universe is a living organism, and nature is largely beyond our control. Humans are only one of many organisms, all equally central to reality. The Universe is basically unknowable. Violence and terror are an integral part of the Cosmos, and classifications are useless because everything is completely unique. Everything is alive, in a Reality that is vast, unlimited and irrational. The Universe itself is intelligent, and is the source of all intelligence. Everything is connected in one vast, unified Being, and everything is sacred. The Chthonian is obviously with us from our primeval past. The Apollonian is the product of our recent history, the development of rationality and civilization. While the Apollonian is reductionist, and reduces reality to a narrow, sterile band of experience, the Chthonian involves the dark and mysterious, the uncontrollable and unknowable, subterranean forces and hidden sources.

The development of civilization is a progressive movement from Chthonian to Apollonian reality. The problem is that the Chthonian is the source of all meaning. No meaning resides in or comes out of the Apollonian. It is analytical, basically pulling the Cosmos and Reality into Its component parts. It does not synthesize the parts of Reality into great wholes. In the process, depth is sacrificed to understanding. When Western culture lost its contact with Chthonian reality, it found itself in a de-sacralized world. Combining a worldview sucked dry of its depth and meaning with a definition of self as separate and unsupported accounts for the desolation and despair of the modern Western mind. We have unwittingly lost our roots. We are adrift in a meaningless Universe. Somehow our development has led us to this cul-de-sac, to this dead-end of human evolutionary consciousness. This is our present situation.

We cannot go backward, so we must find a way to go forward that will yield greater mental health for our entire culture. The issue is not to give up the Apollonian, but to balance it with the Chthonian. We must widen our screen to take in larger realities.

One possibility is to open to the Cosmos as a living, intelligent and evolving Field, a Field that exists as the Matrix out of which all material reality emerges. The story of the Universe is the story of this Field. We are Its latest brilliant innovation. Our consciousness is the Field’s consciousness, the Universe’s consciousness, bending back on Itself to reflect on Its own accomplishments. If we are inside a mysterious and highly creative and evolving Field, and we are the creations of that Field, we have a means, by observing our own processes and development, and particularly our consciousness, of connecting with and observing the Field Itself. It only requires putting a new lens in place, crafting a new understanding of the nature of Reality and our place in that Reality. This is our present task.

Comments are closed.